Friday, October 3, 2008

Read/Write Web - Drawbacks?

Like most things in the world the read/write web has its drawbacks in use in education.

Actually, no it doesn't.

I know, that's a strong statement. But it is the truth. It's not a matter of "the good outweighs the bad, so use it", it's a matter of "there is no bad, so we are crazy if we are not using it". Some of the benefits are well-stated, being free, collaborative, easily accessible, flexible and a medium for communicating your thoughts beyond the walls of your classroom. So, let's look at the common reasons why not to use it:

1. It requires technology, which a resource-strapped school doesn't have.
2. It increases the chance for a student to misuse it, via libel or cyberbullying
3. It exposes students to the outside world, which at the worst could be predatory, and at the least could be critical
4. It creates information overload
5. It creates a bunch of unreliable information
6. It takes time to create web 2.0 lessons

Looking at these critically-
1. It requires technology, which a resource-strapped school doesn't have. Web 2.0 allows for the flexibility to get around resource limitations. No computers in the classroom? Students can use computers in the labs? No computers in the school? The library or home will suffice. Web 2.0 requires no special software and aren't that intensive to run (as opposed to gaming or photo-editing programs).

2. It increases the chance for a student to misuse it, via libel or cyberbullying. Excellent! Not that misuse by students is good, but rather because I as a teacher can help students learn to avoid it.

The thought that schools can't push technology because of cyberbullying makes really no sense. It's like Holden Caufield trying to keep students from swear words. The truth is, people are often mean, both in the real world and in the digital world. How do we teach students to behave correctly in this environment? If we avoid some of the darker realities of human beings, pretend they don't exist, it often does more harm. The way to have students counteract bullying is to show them exactly what it is and talk to them honestly about its effects.

3. It exposes students to the outside world, which at the worst could be predatory, and at the least could be critical. To deny using web 2.0 out of fear of predatory people is lazy. There are privacy features and anonymity features that can take that out of the equation. But to deny it because it exposes student to critical review is awful. We are in the business to help students prepare for the world, to make them realize that their thoughts are valued and that they "have a place at the grown-up table". How do we do that when the only audience a student has is the teacher and the recycle bin?

Exposing students to criticism will help students become more resilient and confident in their abilities. Giving them a venue to speak with others and learn from others is authentic. It is one of the best features of the tool.

4. It creates information overload - As Clay Shirky points out, that ship already sailed with Gutenberg. Once the printing press came out, there was no way we would be able to read everything that was available.

Shirky mentions what we truly have is that our filters for determining which information is important have been broken. We need to find new filters.

This is the definition of "21st century skills"... this is what students need to know in our classroom. How do you determine the quality of information? If we don't use web 2.0, we have no method for developing that skill. Students filters are never threatened if they have one textbook to use as a source. And then when they are in the real world, they are weaponless.

5. It creates a bunch of unreliable information - Just like #4, this is the reality of the world. We have to arm students with ways to determine reliability of sources. And in all honesty, it is about time. We have relied on the belief that our math books are all-encompassing, our language arts anthologies are of the utmost merit in literary selection, and that our history books are correct. They aren't. They are fallible. When have we had students check their assumptions of the textbook? We are setting them up to be naive. And once again, web 2.0 is the tool to bring this to the forefront.

An interesting sidenote: Wikipedia is often attacked as being without scholarly merit because of the nature of its compilation (it is created by lay people for pete's sake!). Is it susceptible to inaccurate information? You bet. But it is even more susceptible to swift correction of inaccurate information. A good activity with your class... inject a rogue piece of information on a page that will be well-traveled. Make it knowingly wrong. See how long it lasts before someone edits it. A week? A day? When we tried with "Arthur Miller" and "Salem Witch Trials", they were edited out before the end of the period. While Wikipedia might have inaccuracies, I know the World Book will have inaccuracies, in anything that has changed since its last publication. Which place is the best to source for election data, for example?

6. It takes time to create web 2.0 lessons - Good. We have an over-reliance on the worksheet masters that are used every year anyways. Nothing will be a better use of your time, in my opinion.

But even the central premise there isn't correct. If you compare the amount of time it used to take to create technology integration, web 2.0 is saving time. I used to have students create web pages for their research projects. This would require the use of Adobe GoLive, which would take quite a bit of instruction time. No reason to do that anymore. Web 2.0 takes the intensive learning curve out of the equation, meaning the benefits of technology are immediately accessible to students. It can take less than 10 minutes to show students what blogs are and how you want them to use blogs in your classroom.

What this all boils down to is that the read/write web is the world we live in, just as literacy is the world we live in. And just as we correctly say that literacy should be infused in all classrooms, not just language arts, the read/write web should be infused in all classrooms, not just the computer applications class.

The key is, as always, proper teaching. It means using the tool and all the "warts" as learning opportunities to foster correct use and growth. This requires professional development, but it is essential. To back down from web 2.0 because of "drawbacks" ultimately shortchanges students for the 21st century.

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